- It is estimated that there are currently 450,000 centenarians worldwide, and about 72,000 in the U.S.
- According to the free radical theory of aging (FRTA), aging is the result of the fight between oxidative stress and antioxidants.
- Daily stress is one of the main culprits of disease among humans, and daily antioxidants are one of the main supporters of longevity.
- Lifestyle factors that produce more antioxidants and promote longevity include attitude and stress-relief, exercise, dietary choices, sleep, socializing, and brain health.
It is important to first note that there is nothing you can do to guarantee a long lifespan. There are individuals who maintain healthy diets and exercise regularly and still come down with cancer or dementia. Some diseases do not discriminate. However, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of living your longest possible life expectancy and avoiding disease and premature death.
There are curious givens in today’s perspective of living to join the centenarian club, facts you might not have known about longevity and life expectancy. For example, did you know that your chances of reaching age 100 are superior if you’re a female? The speculation is that this is perhaps because of the negative effects of testosterone compared to the positive effects of estrogen. If that doesn’t sway you, you’re not alone.
Another contributor to the fact that women live longer may be that men are generally more impulsive, take more risks, party harder (smoking and drinking), and engage in fewer health-protective behaviors (such as wearing seatbelts and going to the doctor) .
Did you know that your chances of getting up there in life expectancy are better if you’re a baby? And still better if you were born in the year of 2016 as opposed to born thirty or forty years earlier? The main reason is that healthcare has improved dramatically over recent years and continues to advance, drastically reducing infant mortality rates and making us better disposed to greater longevity. Mortality rates have dropped for the older population as well as we have made great progress treating and managing diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
A UK study provided this statistic about their youngest population: of the 783,000 babies in the UK in 2016 under the age of one year, 248,000 (32%) are projected to live to 100 and older. In fact, centenarians (people who reach the age of 100 years or more) are currently the fastest growing part of the population in pretty much all advanced nations. However, the current life expectancy on average in the U.S. is still 78.74 years, so we still have a long way to go.
Thomas Perls, Associate Professor of medicine at Boston University, manages a study of nearly 1,600 centenarians, the largest such population under study in the world. His findings reveal interesting statistics: approximately 50% of those who make it to 100+ have parents or grandparents who also lived to old age. Other family studies revealed that roughly one quarter of the life expectancy factor is due to genetic factors.
Recent statistics moreover also reveal that not only are the offspring of centenarians more predisposed to reach the 100-year benchmark, they are far less likely to suffer from various noxious illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.
These statistics, and those from other studies, emphasize however that life expectancy is shaped by a combination of genetic and non-genetic factors. Those non-genetic factors comprise the crux of the matter in the rest of this article, for we will discuss how life expectancy has a lot to do with how well we maintain our organisms, system and organs, down to the cellular level.
However, researchers currently believe that while they play a role, genes only account for about 25% of the variability of the human lifespan.
Our bodies have to contend with wear and tear much like an engine that is left out in the backyard. The ongoing wear and tear occurs throughout our body, down to our cellular system, akin to the rust and disrepair that develops on the disregarded engine. It is caused by what is referred to as oxidative stress (OS). Our cells can thus “rust”, even as we breathe, due to the oxidative damage, a process caused by “free radicals”. Here is how it all works:
“Oxidation” occurs in the body in the process of removing electrons from an atom or molecule. The result of this change can be destructive, as in the dilapidated engine left to rust out in the yard. The oxygen we breathe is the culprit, better known as the “oxidizing agent”. We create a high rate of free radicals as we metabolize oxygen and nutrients to generate energy.
But unlike our metabolic system that transforms food and oxygen into the energy that drives us, the excess oxygen is concentrated and turns corrosive by generating unstable molecules known as free radicals. In an effort to stabilize, free radicals in turn strip electrons from any other healthy molecules they come up against, eating their way into our cells and, like an army of locusts, into other organisms and tissue, and ultimately throughout the rest of our body.
According to the free radical theory of aging (FRTA), one of the predominant theories of aging, oxidative stress fights off our efforts at consuming and producing antioxidants within our body and becomes, in a nutshell, what causes us to age.
The story of stress is thousands of years old. Stress is omnipresent in our lives irrespective of the level of awareness that we garner in its regard, and there is no vaccine, no magic wand to rid us of it. All that we can do is learn how to best manage it.
Stress is when we feel that the conditions that challenge us become overwhelming, when we question –fearfully- whether we are equipped to handle the pressures, and when we embark into the darkness of unchartered mental struggles. It is the harbinger of toxic thinking, often making us view our issues through the tiny prism of fear.
Stress -the mere mention of the word- evokes in us worrisome attitudes in which our nerves become consumed with edginess and irritable unease. Some of us learn to cope with it more effectively, while for others, it simply becomes in our body a fertile incubator for chronic mental fatigue and physical ailments—the ultimate ingredients for aging.
In today’s fast-paced lifestyles, we are forced into patterns of multi-tasking, combined with an endless array of family, financial, and job-related tribulations, not to mention frustrated ambitions and ill-fated time-management that leaves us at any given time with a hideous array of unnerving loose ends.
And in our minds, we keep aggrandizing the problem, for when left to their own devices, our minds are quite adept at generating amplified, distorted and relentlessly fear and guilt-ridden depictions of reality. The rate of chatter in our minds is astronomical; it grips us and keeps us in a state of dazed anxiety, and we hardly ever stop to wonder how and where it’s coming from. We realize that we bring this upon ourselves and yet, for most of us, the answers prove to be confusing and obscure.
When left unchecked, stress becomes a horrendous contributor to the additional inertia of the free radicals that roam within our body.
Among the populations of advanced nations, there are furthermore other environmental stressors such as contamination in the air we breathe, radiation, atmospheric toxins, tobacco smoke, sugar, and other oxidizing agents. When these are piled on top of stress, the problem of oxidation that breeds free radicals is made all that much worse.
Admittedly, we cannot realistically aspire to rid ourselves entirely of anxiety, for our anxieties are deeply embedded in our very fabric –in our DNA. There is however much that we can do, as will be discussed in the remainder of this article.
It’s not all gloom and doom however, for free radicals also generate “repair” mechanisms, and it is only when the destruction is greater than the repairing activity that free radicals pose a meaningful problem, boosting the aging factor.
But even then, we can muster an impressive arsenal of defenses to at least slow down the march of free radicals. Although those mitigating protections consist predominantly of consuming and producing antioxidants, they also include other lifestyle adaptations and habits we can acquire to withstand and defer the aging process.
Aging and age-related diseases are sometimes seen as a reflection of the failure of our antioxidant defenses to overpower the oxidative stress that degrades our systems. The good news is that with strong antioxidant defenses, long life without serious illnesses should be conceivable. First though: antioxidants.
Antioxidants are the most basic and natural way of delivering to your cells protection mechanisms that in large measure thwart the mushrooming of oxidative stress and free radicals. Antioxidants blend into your metabolism as micronutrients that are critically important in your daily fight against environmental and stress-related pollutants. They thus play a vital role in how you subconsciously fare against the other constituents of the aging process -and against the inevitability of death.
In addition, we all know that we can consume antioxidants in the foods, vitamins and other supplements we ingest, but did you also know that you can enhance the natural manufacturing of antioxidants within your body through lifestyle adjustments and developing better-focused daily habits? The important factor to keep in mind is that antioxidants can also be produced within you by your body, and the younger and more health-driven you are, the more vigorous your natural production of these all-natural vitamins.
Here are top antioxidant foods, herbs, vitamins, and other nutritional supplements that you can include in your diet:
- Resveratrol supplements (resveratrol is found naturally in red wine and various supplements)
- Dark chocolate
- Kidney beans
- Green tea
- And many more, available naturally or in supplements
As you probably know, important components of a healthy lifestyle involve:
- Attitude and Stress-relief
- Healthy food and nutrients
- And brain health
Donning a positive attitude
Your basic attitude to life has a lot to do with how you handle distress. You may bring stress upon yourself involuntarily by adopting a cynical viewpoint to life, or by upholding a pessimistic outlook in your mind and walking around dejected and with low self-compassion. If you are natural-born pessimist, perpetually refuting the goodness in other people, then you are going to view everything that is going on in this world, including death itself, as being of a depressive nature. That attitude will foster an unforgiving sense of anxiety.
It is important to realize that life attitudes are not entirely hereditary and can be easily adjusted. Peer influences, and interactions with parents, school mates, and co-workers make it commonplace for someone to move from a somber to a cheerful outlook.
There is much to learn from relatively recent findings in the field of brain neuroplasticity: the brain can be rewired and made to change. In fact, if you practice something new, acquire a new lifestyle, or take on new habits, the brain adjusts. Changing from a dull to a positive attitude can start with acquiring new habits of the positive kind.
Physical distress, deep anxiety, environmental stress, psychological and other blocks to your personal growth can permeate into our systems, impacting our ability to fight against oxidative stress. These need to be sprung open, and your wonderfully regenerative body can do that, sometimes with only a little help from you.
Our emotions run high at times, leaving our energy depleted. Fear can do that, or relentlessly high stress, such as feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, mostly amplified by the workings of the inner mind.
Methods to regain emotional composure can differ from one situation to the other and between individuals. Stress-relief modalities such as breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, visualization and others can help quiet the buzz that goes on in your mind and giving you fleeting, though critical, moments of awareness. If you are not currently embracing one or more of these techniques, then it may be time to teach yourself one of them, starting perhaps with breathing exercises, which can be put to task anywhere and at any time.
Do yourself a huge favor and acquire a taste for regular and strenuous exercise. Being and staying active is critical for you on a variety of different levels, from keeping the heart pumping away optimally to improving blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Exercise also facilitates that part of your metabolism that boosts the production of antioxidants.
Does it matter what kind of exercise you do? We’re not going to dwell too long on this since we all know what being and staying fit means. What is important is to find a physical activity you enjoy and that you can easily incorporate into your daily schedule and keep up as you age. Even just walking for an hour every day has health benefits. A consistent fitness routine can also help shake the cobwebs out of your brain.
Importantly, being sedentary or inactive is associated with greater likelihood of disease and death. Obesity has become a public health crisis in the U.S. and is associated with greater likelihood of many health problems, including disease and disability. If you are overweight and/or inactive, try incorporating some form of regular physical activity into your life. If you’ve suffered from physical problems or injuries, physical therapy or rehabilitation can drastically improve your mobility and health. Physical therapy can also help people who are obese be more physically active and fit by teaching them fun and pain-free ways to exercise. The right exercise is crucial because it can help you lose weight, burn calories, eliminate fat, preserve muscle tissue, and protect your joints.
Regrettably, we are in the age of the fast and the convenient, including when it comes to our diet. We indulge in synthetic and processed foods that are full of pesticides, coloring agents, preservatives, dyes and a slew of other toxins. This compares to our grandparents who had more raw food, nuts and other healthy nutrients in their diets. Changing the way you eat can have remarkable effects on not only your weight but your health and longevity, including likelihood of developing cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.
Here are 10 consumption habits and nutrition guidelines for health and vitality:
Avoid artificial sweeteners and pasteurized dairy products, and try eating more nutritional vegetables and fruit (less fruit if weight loss is your goal). Organic, grass-fed meats are also better than common meats you may buy; in addition, try to incorporate more raw foods, including flax and other seeds, into your diet.
Avoid sugar and too much salt
Sugar suppresses the immune system and has other harmful effects on the body, such as putting you at risk for diabetes. Too much salt is also dangerous as it can put you on the road to hypertension.
Omega 3 and Omega 6
Eat more products with omega 3 and less with omega 6; walnuts, fish and flaxseeds are rich in omega 3. You can also take omega 3 fish-oil vitamins.
Soak nuts and legumes
You want the good kinds of enzymes to maintain optimal metabolic activity, and soaking nuts and legumes activates enzymes and blocks enzyme inhibitors.
Eat natural and organic
“Natural” commonly refers to un-engineered, un-synthesized and un-altered foods, and “organic” foods avoid harsh chemicals, insecticides, fertilizers, coloring agents and the antibiotics that are used in producing meat and poultry.
Eat several small meals a day
Eating 4 or 5 smaller meals a day relieves the adrenals from pressure and makes for a significant stabilizing factor for your blood sugars.
Add some superfoods in your regular diet, including resveratrol (found in red wine, cocoa, and other products), kale, cilantro, collard greens, parsley, dandelion, spinach, and fruit like apples.
Avoid sodas and bottled fruit juices
It’s best to consume the whole fruit that has more fiber and less artificial substances. Fruit juices and sodas tend to contain high amounts of sugar and thus should be eliminated from your diet, especially if one of your goals is weight loss.
Eat good kinds of fish
Avoid fish with a high content of mercury; better kinds of fish include salmon, light canned tuna, sardine, snapper, haddock, tilapia, herring, crawfish, catfish, and various others. Sardines are a great source of calcium, which is particularly important for bone health.
Limit your frying to a minimum
Try to limit your consumption of fried foods. If you have to fry food, make sure you don’t use polyunsaturated oils – the type that free radicals thrive on.
In his book called the Longevity Diet, Dr. Valter Longo discusses essential components of a diet associated with greater health and longevity. He recommends following a pescatarian diet, or a diet that is close to a 100% plant-based diet, with the exception of fish. As part of the “longevity diet,” you should not eat too much protein per day, and should avoid animal proteins (red meat, cheese etc.). Individuals should minimize bad fats and sugars and maximize good (unsaturated) fats and complex carbs. For extra assurance that your body is getting the proper nutrients, take vitamins and minerals such as a multivitamin plus an omega-3 fish oil soft gel every 2-3 days. He also recommends a fasting-mimicking diet (restricting calories) for 5 days at least twice a year, which he argues can have significant effects on reducing disease and improving longevity. Fasting periods can help kill cancer cells, reverse autoimmune disorders, and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Just make sure you discuss any potential dietary changes or fasting practices with your doctor.
Read more here.
In addition to diet and nutrition, various studies have linked good sleeping habits to longer, healthier life expectancy. Naturally, the question arises as to what sleeping “sufficiently” implies, for attribute some harm to both sleeping too little as well as too much.
In one study, researchers followed pairs of twins since twins are presumably raised in same environments and with equal hereditary factors. They conducted a study of over 21,000 twins for more than 22 years, with special interest on each twin’s sleep patterns and subsequent diseases and other longevity factors. The fact that the researchers managed the study for the duration of more than two decades gave their findings excellent peer reviews.
The findings were clear: the numbers showed that best outcome came from those who slept precisely 7 hours a night, not more, and not less. Those who slept less than 7 hours a night or more than 8 boosted their chance of death by 17 to 24 percent. The use of sleep medications also increased the risk of mortality. While researchers are still examining what accounts for the link between sleep and health, research suggests that regularly sleeping for less than seven hours a night can have negative effects on our cardiovascular, endocrine, immune and nervous systems. Thus, if you want to reap the most benefits from sleeping each night, aim for an average of 7-8 hours per night.
It has always been said that one of the best antidotes to withdrawal and depression is laughter, and that the more you laugh, the healthier you’ll be.
While that statement is mostly hearsay, research actually supports a wide range of health benefits stemming from positive social interactions.
In a “social life for longevity” study conducted by the University of North Carolina and published in the journal of National Academy of Sciences, the findings suggested that a socially active lifestyle contributed to better general health and disease prevention. The researchers further emphasized that the beneficial effects of an active social life improved health at every age and every stage of life.
The flip side of this finding was also corroborated, in that withdrawal and social isolation is associated with increased inflammation and other negative health consequences. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, withdrawal and social isolation in older adults was found to be more harmful than hypertension or diabetes. Thus, it is just as important to maintain our social networks and continue to engage with others throughout our lives as it is to maintain a healthy diet, maybe even more so.
One of the secrets to longevity involves keeping up your mental faculties by participating in thought-provoking mental activities that are both entertaining and engaging.
Experts in living healthier and longer concur in the notion that if you want to join the centenarian club and still live vigorously when you get there, you might want to indulge in activities or habits that keep your mind working. Naturally, crossword puzzles come to mind, as do chess, card games such as bridge and, especially, games that achieve both stimulating the mind as well as socializing.
Using mental workouts, like puzzles, word searches and mind games, might also help slow the progression of cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
Recent brain studies have also disproved the myth that our brains can’t develop beyond age 30, and one great strategy is to try to learn a new language. In fact, neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to reconfigure itself and to retain new information, persists throughout our lifetime. Learning a new language is one of the most complex things you can strive for later in life, since the process is entirely different than when you learned your first language as a child. Research also has revealed that cardiovascular health is an important predictor of brain health and cognitive function – what’s good for the heart also seems to be good for the mind. This underscores the importance of exercise and good nutrition.
If anything, we learned in this article how important it is to fight off the oxidative stress and free radicals that roam continually through our bodies. We can fight back by eating antioxidant-rich foods and supplements that we listed, as well as with the antioxidants that our bodies produce on a daily basis. This latter we accomplish primarily by shirking off as much of our daily stress as we can manage, but also by embracing the healthy lifestyles that help generate those non-consumed antioxidants.
While there are no guarantees and there is no instruction manual for living to 100, there are things you can do to increase your chances of a long and healthy life, such as following the longevity diet, staying socially active, and maintaining good sleep habits. However, it is important to take longevity advice with a grain of salt. The record for the longest human lifespan thus far belongs to Jeanne Calment, a French woman who lived a total of 122 years and 164 days, and who supposedly ate more than two pounds of chocolate per week and smoked until she was 117. While certain behaviors should theoretically shorten our lives and others should lengthen them, sometimes people just get lucky or unlucky. We may not know how long this ride called life will last – the best we can do is enjoy the ride as best we can and try to be healthy while doing so.